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Regulators approve utilities’ plans to buy 92-megawatt wind farm

The 66-megawatt Saratoga Wind Farm owned by Madison Gas & Electric in Howard County. State regulators on Wednesday approved MG&E and We Energies’ plans to purchase a separate, 92-megawatt wind farm in the towns of Wingville and Clifton as part of the utilities’ plans to ween themselves off coal-fired generation. (Photo courtesy of MG&E)

State regulators have approved a pair of utilities’ proposal to purchase a $162 million wind farm in Grant County as part of a long-term plan to replace coal-fired power with renewable energy. 

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission on Wednesday signed off on Utilities We Energies and Madison Gas and Electric’s plan to buy the 92-megawatt Red Barn Wind Farm in the western Wisconsin towns of Wingville and Clifton once it’s operational. Work on the project is expected to begin early this year and wrap up by the end of 2022. 

The commission’s approval of the purchase came over the objections of the Citizens Utility Board, a ratepayer advocate, which questioned the reasons for the project and its place in a broader utility plan to replace coal-fired generation with renewable energy. The Citizens Utility Board argued a study conducted to determine the need for the project had lacked “analytical rigor,” especially when various other utility projects are taken into consideration. In a separate case, the group also asked the PSC to review the utilities’ long-range power-generation plans. 

PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq acknowledged that the Citizens Utility Board’s comments had made her reevaluate the utilities’ proposal to buy the wind farm. But, she noted, state statute allows the PSC to look at utility projects only one at a time. The state Legislature, she noted, decided in the 90s to withdraw regulators’ authority to review utilities’ long-term power-generation plans.

“We don’t have the legal basis to do something like what CUB has asked us to do,” Valcq said. “We really don’t have a way to look at these comprehensive reshaping plans for any of our utilities. That does a disservice to customers and to us.” 

Because the Red Barn wind farm would generate less than 100 megawatts of power, the PSC has no authority to decide if it’s needed, as it would have for larger projects. The commission, instead, could only review the proposal to allow the project to be bought once it’s up and running. 

When that proposed purchase is made, We Energies will own 90% of the Red Barn wind farm, and Madison Gas & Electric will have the rest. The wind farm consists of 29 turbines on 12,000 acres, enough to power about 35,000 homes. 

The project sits near the existing We Energies’ existing Montfort Wind Energy Center. It’s also near the 300-megawatt Badger Hollow Solar Farm, which is in its second phase of construction. 

PSC member Tyler Huebner noted that the wind farm is just a small part of a series of renewable-energy projects that will be needed to replace coal-fired power. 

“This is a 92-megawatt project out of many hundreds of megawatts that are going to need to be replaced,” he said. 

We Energies and MG&E last fall each announced plans to eliminate coal from their power generation mix by 2035. We Energies said it plans to spend $5.4 billion on renewables between 2022 and 2026. The utility would also convert its coal-fired Elm Road Generating Station so that it runs on natural gas. 

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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